Sushi is not like whisky…. “Why, thank you, Captain Obvious,” you say, “one comes from a bottle and one comes from fish and other things wot live in the sea”. Well, first of all, whisky sometimes comes in a can, and secondly, imaginary interlocutor, if you’d let me finish, I was going to go on to say that unlike with whisky, the quality of sushi is very strongly correlated with price and once you’ve gone up the quality ladder it is very hard to level down; which makes good sushi a little harder on the wallet than good whisky.
[There is a slideshow below if you want to skip the wall of text. It’s a free country. For now.]
A more expensive, cask strength 10 yo single cask Laphroaig, say, from a boutiquey independent bottler may well be no better than a cheaper indie bottle at 46% or even the official 10 yo at 43%. With sushi, however, there is a tremendous difference between a slice of tuna, say, at a budget sushi place or even a pretty good neighbourhood place and the much more expensive slice at a serious sushi restaurant. The quality of the fish matters greatly and the better places a) have better access to the better fish and b) pay more to get it and c) get a more interesting variety of it. You in turn pay for all of this and also for the skill and fastidiousness of the master sushi chef who will discard far more of even this higher quality fish in slicing the perfect bite for you. In whisky terms you might see this as equivalent to distilleries that take a very narrrow cut of the distillate for maturing. And then there’s the question of rice, which is generally indifferent at best at regular places but obsessed over almost as much as the fish at serious places. And then you come to the matter of seasonings and flourishes and flavour/textural combinations and progressions that regular places generally don’t bother with as much.
As I mentioned in my first post in this “Gluttony in Los Angeles” series, we don’t bother with sushi in Minnesota, as even the best generally fails most of the criteria above except that of price. (Which brings me to the limit of the principle outlined above: while really good sushi will always be expensive; expensive sushi will not necessarily be good.) We tend to starve ourselves of sushi 10 months out of the year and eat very good sushi when we come to Los Angeles once or twice a year.
This may sound like folly to you–it’s just fish, you may say, how different can it be and how much difference can the slicing of it make? And I know where you’re coming from. Until very recently I was in your camp–I was happy paying $30-40 for a sushi meal and refused to believe that places that charged a lot more could really have that much better fish. Indeed, I was quite a sushi snob even at that threshold. All of that changed with my first high end sushi omakase, at Kiyokawa in Beverly Hills. (Kiyokawa is mostly known for his elaborate Kaiseki style meals, but his sushi is pretty damn good too.) Since that meal we’ve all but stopped eating mid-level sushi even in Los Angeles.
We will be returning to Kiyokawa on Friday for an anniversary lunch, but stopped in yesterday for a quick omakase lunch at another acclaimed Los Angeles sushi establishment: Kiriko. Of all the top sushi places in L.A (and Kiriko is usually ranked near the top), Kiriko is the most casual and laid back: the chefs maintain their composure while serving spicy tuna rolls, nobody frowns on camera or cellphone use, and the range of preparations on display range from rigorously classical (a slice of luminous blue fin tuna over rice) to nouveau (one of their specialties is house-smoked salmon wrapped around a piece of mango). Despite the quality of fish coming out from behind the bar it is no forbidding temple of sushi. And they have a screaming deal at lunch: a $40 omakase meal starting with excellent salad and miso soup, followed by nine exquisite pieces of nigiri sushi and finally a large blue crab handroll. Not only is this a good price in the abstract for this quantity of high quality fish, you actually get a lot of very interesting fish.
Our meal yesterday was truly excellent, with a wonderful sequencing of flavours and textures. The only complaints I might register are a) that there were a few too many pieces with yuzu peel grated over them and b) that while the uni we added on to the omakase was good, it was not the best quality (and not a patch on the uni at Kiyokawa). If we still lived here I’d eat this lunch once a week, and then I wouldn’t have as much money for whisky. Now I’m very confused.
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